If your business is stagnating or stalling, it’s important to remember that you’re not alone. Millions of successful businesses have been there before you and the vast majority of them will have skirted with failure at one point or another. Even the big companies, the multi-billion pound unicorns have struggled.
But they made it through to the other end and that’s all that matters. And if they can turn their performance around, there’s no reason why you can’t too.
In this blog post, I’ll look at three highly successful businesses that came back from the brink. I’ll also try and pick out some learning points from each story to help you avoid similar problems.
So, let’s get started.
Way back in 1971, fresh-faced Yale graduate Fred Smith made the biggest decision of his life: To take $4 million of inheritance and $80 million in loans and investments and found a new delivery company.
That company was called Federal Express.
Despite its huge initial investment — roughly $512 million today — Smith’s fledgling company was floundering just three years later.
Smith had invested ambitiously and had just $5,000 left in the bank. To make matters worse, Federal Express’ monthly fuel bill ran to $24,000. There was absolutely no strategy in place on how to attract new customers and keep the old ones coming back so that his fledgling company can thrive. The future wasn’t looking bright for Smith and his startup.
So, what happened?
In a moment of madness (or inspired business brilliance), Smith booked a ticket to McCarran International Airport in Nevada. When he arrived he took a taxi to the nearest casino, found the nearest blackjack table and traded in his $5,000 for chips.
At the end of the night, he’d quintupled his stack and won enough cash to keep his fleet operating for another month.
Fast forward to 2017 and Federal Express — now rebranded to the more recognisable FedEx — is a little bigger and a little healthier. A global delivery powerhouse, FedEx has a net income of $1.8 billion, it employs over four hundred thousand people and it processes 13 million shipments every single day.
Not bad for a company that almost ran out of money.
Key Takeaway: Healthy cashflow is key to running a successful business. I have seen many otherwise profitable businesses become insolvent simply because their debts fall in the wrong way and they ran out of cash. Don’t one of them.
#2. Marvel Comics
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During the ‘60s, ‘70s and ‘80s, Marvel Comics was on a stellar trajectory. Nothing could slow them down as they wrote, designed and launched comic after comic.
However, what goes up must come down and the 1990s would be a harsh wake up call for the comic publisher.
In 1993, with the market still in rude health, author Neil Gaiman gave a speech tearing into the industry. He claimed the comic industry had developed into a collectors’ market with speculators buying dozens of each issues as investments.
The market, he said, was a bubble designed to inflate prices. As it turned out, he was right.
During the mid-1990s, the bubble burst in spectacular fashion. Marvel’s income plummeted and by 1995 the company was heavily in debt.
The next ten years weren’t kind to Marvel as the company pinballed from one crisis to the next. Marvel’s director, Avi Arad, eventually filed for bankruptcy, allowing him to affect large-scale changes across the company and set a new vision for the company.
In 2005 Marvel put all its characters up as collateral and secured a financial deal with Merrill Lynch for $525 million. It used the fresh cash to grow the company and bring its characters and stories to a brand new, younger generation.
That investment paid off in spectacular fashion as four years later Marvel was acquired by The Walt Disney Company for a hefty sum of $4.24 billion. This is pure inspired business brilliance in action.
Key Takeaway: Don’t rely on short-term trends for long-term growth. Eventually, the trend will turn and that can leave your business stranded.
When most people think of DIY holidays, they think of online accommodation marketplace, Airbnb. But the San Fran startup wasn’t always the industry stalwart it is today. Many people probably didn’t believe that such a “crazy” idea was going to survive.
Ten years ago, Airbnb was nothing more than the glint in the eyes of its founders, Brian Chesky and Joe Gebbia. Unfortunately, few others were bought in.
The travel industry was — and, I suppose, is — incredibly traditional and that put investors off. Could this new website ever really replace hotels? Would consumers really trust random people to provide a hotel-quality room or apartments? Investors thought not.
A couple years ago, Chesky actually published some of those investor rejection emails. They’re brutally short and painfully to the point. Check them out here. These emails are enough to make a business owner have a rethink about continuing.
Okay, back to the story.
Chesky and Gebbia were running Airbnb out of their expensive San Fran apartment. Their money was running out, their credit card debt was piling up and they were struggling to keep their heads above the water.
So, what did they do?
Well, since they were in the midst of the 2008 McCain-Obama presidential campaign, they decided to cash in on the political drama.
Chesky called a print shop and ordered 1,000 cereal boxes labelled as either ‘Obama Os” or “Captain McCains”.
Fuelled by the strong political divide in the US, the founders sold out of cereal in no time and even landed themselves some national TV coverage.
The money from the cereal sales was enough to tide them over until they got onto the Y Combinator startup accelerator. And the rest is history.
Key Takeaway: Non-traditional (although not necessarily cereal-based) fundraising is increasing in popularity. Crowdfunding, equity crowdfunding and peer-to-peer lending have all exploded over the past few years and might be a good fit for your business. If you’ve tried all other business strategies but you seem not to find any result, try these ones; crowdfunding, equity crowdfunding and peer-to-peer lending.
Wrapping Up and Moving Forward
So there you have it. Three highly successful companies that crawled their way back from the brink and returned to profitability. And if they can do it, there’s no reason why you can’t turn around your performance and get your business back on track.
What do you think about the businesses we covered? Are there any good examples we missed out? Jump into the comments and let us know.
About the Author
Barry is a chartered accountant and has specialised in corporate recovery, restructuring and personal insolvency since 1999. Barry recently co-founded financial advice firm 180 Advisory Solutions.